Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

D31_2822_DxOWe’ve come to Paris for a quick getaway, and Stuttgart is less than 4 hours by direct fast train. As we think about what we want to do and see, we realize neither of us have ever visited Chartres.

Uwe and I go out of our way to see sacred places around the globe. (See my posts The Cult of Bà Chúa Xứ or The Music of the Heavenly Spheres for some photos and tales from other sacred spots.) Energies gather in some unlikely places. Sometimes I stand in famous spots and am disappointed, while a place less known for religion makes me feel the presence of the divine.

Chartres. I’ve been trying for days – weeks, actually – to summarize the “facts” about this site. It was built 1140-1260 and the labyrinth was laid in the first decade of the 13th century. I wonder what to mention about Chartres’ 1,000 years as a pilgrimage destination, or the female energies of the cathedral and their tenderness. Mary’s tunic, the Sancta Camisia worn at the birth of Jesus Christ, was brought here by Charlemagne. The king in turn had been given the relic as a gift during a trip to Jerusalem.

When the earlier church building burned on June 10, 1194, the Sancta Camisia miraculously survived. Chartres remains an important Marian pilgrimage center, and the faithful still come from around the world over to honor it.D31_2829_DxO

Chartres is one of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals on Earth. Back in my college days at the University of Oregon, Professor James Boren in his Chaucer and Medieval Literature classes explained Chartres as literally turning the architectural form inside out. For the first time the ribs holding up the entire structure had been placed outside, allowing the inside heart of the structure to soar up into the Heavens, seemingly without limits. The support of flying buttresses was necessary because of the unprecedented size and heights of the stained glass windows and the nave. Professor Boren’s face glowed; this stern and learned man radiated as he lectured about a place that he said changed him when he saw it. That lecture and the look on his face stayed with me. Chartres: someday I would see it.D31_2883_DxO

***

Chartres Cathedral contains one of the few remaining medieval labyrinths. It’s large with a circumference of 131 feet, almost exactly the same size as the West Rose window.

Rose Window
Rose Window

In the Middle Ages, French church labyrinths were the sites of Easter dances involving clergy and the tossing of a leather ball. Sadly, the labyrinths were destroyed, covered over, or hidden by Church authorities suspicious of their powers and pagan beginnings. (Labyrinths, including Chartres’, traditionally had an disk or placque of Theseus and Ariadne and the Minotaur at their centers. In fact, another name for a cathedral that contained a labyrinth was the “Domus Daedali” [House of Daedalus], a nod to antiquity’s Daedalus, designer of the labyrinth that held the Minotaur in Knossos.) *

But, Chartres’ labyrinth survived. I learn that while it’s covered by chairs most of the time, the labyrinth is made free for visitors to enter on Fridays. My one request to Uwe for our trip becomes, “Please let’s go to Chartres on Friday!”

So here we are, entering one of the holy pilgrimage destinations in Christianity.

Chartres. Once inside, the cathedral’s beauty immediately takes my breath away. I am so deeply moved that in the next moment I’m close to tears. Whatever I expected, this sacred soaring space is beyond all imagination. Light streams in through the windows and illuminates the visitors, pilgrims, and the simply curious. All of us are suffused in colors.

For a while I just walk around. Uwe’s already moved off with his camera, ready as always to use his art with photography to capture in images what my brain grapples with in words.

As the minutes pass I grow more and more stunned. And I remain dangerously, or is that gorgeously, close to breaking into tears. There is an energy to this place, a sense of the holy and the really, really blessed, that I have seldom felt anywhere.D31_2796_DxO

The Schwedagon Pagoda in Burma comes to mind. It is the most important pagoda in the country, and I felt the top of my head buzz like it was going to blow off from the concentration of religious energies. Or a back pond in the Adirondacks with only my family as fellow witnesses: loons with a pair of chicks calling in low cries to one another as they eyed us but didn’t swim away. Or a tiny Greek Orthodox church in Thessaloniki, supposedly built on the site where Apostle Paul preached. I attended on Sunday with my friend Cynthia and our Greek host Fotis, who led us up to an altar surrounded by burning, hand-dipped wax tapers. Fotis insisted we take bread from the common basket. Tears streamed on both our faces; I finally felt the deeper meaning of breaking bread in fellowship.

All of these places’ sacred energies are present in Chartres. It is so much more than I deserve or had awaited. I take a deep breath to center myself, and move forward to stand poised at the entry to the labyrinth.

***

“A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of the circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. …D31_2798_DxO

“A labyrinth is an archetype with which we can have a direct experience. … It is a metaphor for life’s journey. It is a symbol that creates a sacred space and place and takes us out of our ego to “That Which Is Within.” At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are. …D31_2790_DxO

“A labyrinth is not a maze. A maze is like a puzzle to be solved. It has twists, turns, and blind alleys. It is a left brain task that requires logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path into the maze and out. A labyrinth has only one path. It is unicursal. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again.D31_2788_DxO

“A labyrinth is a right brain task. It involves intuition, creativity, and imagery. With a maze many choices must be made and an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not. A more passive, receptive mindset is needed. The choice is whether or not to walk a spiritual path.” – Dan Johnston, Ph.D. at www.lessons4living.com

Exterior Chartres Cathedral
Exterior Chartres Cathedral

While I walk the labyrinth and contemplate the mystery of the sacred**, Uwe photographs me. When I see his photos later I’m surprised, and glad.

***

NOTES: * Another name for the eleven-circuit labyrinth is the “Chemin de Jerusalem” or Road of Jerusalem. Walking the labyrinth in Chartres or other places could be made instead of making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

** I haven’t even tried to talk about the lunations of the labyrinth. Their meaning is still debated. A celestial calendar? Esoteric design of the deeper mysteries?

Walking a Sacred Path. Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Dr. Lauren Artress, Riverhead Books, 1995.

http://www.sacred-destinations.com/france/chartres-cathedral

http://www.labyrinthos.net

http://www.lessons4living.com/chartres_labyrinth.htm

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from France and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Massage in Indonesia: Java

Borobodur, Java, Indonesia
Borobodur, Java, Indonesia

The scent of floating roses is the first thing I notice. The smell comes from the pots of flowers set in front of a deep tub. Eventually I smell a burning stick of incense. The bamboo walls don’t reach the ceiling, and smoke simply wafts up and out to the palm trees outdoors. Only later when the sun goes down do I detect a burning mosquito coil.

My therapist here on Java is named Bu Tami Juguk. Bu Tami asks me to remove all of my clothes and lie on the low bamboo bed covered with batik sheets. Since the temperature is about 30 degrees Centigrade (86 degrees Fahrenheit) I don’t mind lying naked without a drape. She goes to the tub and turns on the taps. The sound of running water is in the background during the entire massage.

Bu Tami is 41 years old, and the Bu title is the shortened version of Ibu,  a term of respect used to address an older woman. Bu Tami doesn’t speak much English, but has wise hands. Indonesian massage knowledge passes down through the family, and Bu Tami learned massage from her mother.

She starts at my feet and massages me with a press – push – squeeze routine. She doesn’t forget to massage my abdomen. Her strokes go deep and radiate, always leading inwards to my navel. She finishes by massaging my head with sweeping strokes. She grasps at the roots of my hair and her hands draw out to the ends with an unusually firm grip.

She uses sandalwood oil, flowers cooked into it for their essence. This oil is only for the initial part of the massage, though. As I lie there, Bu Tami takes a clay jar down from a shelf. She scoops out a greeny-yellow substance and slathers it onto my body.

I am being covered with lulur, an exfoliating scrub derived from a Javanese plant combined with rice meal. Lulur may include ginger extract, tumeric, sandalwood, jasmine oil and water. This lulur treatment is utilized as a beauty peeling for everyone except babies. Jogjakarta city still has the special status of a sultanate, and lulur was first used by the women at the Kraton, the sultan’s palace.

Javanese men and women use lulur before marrying. Lulur is traditionally applied at home on each of the 3 days preceding a wedding ceremony. The lulur sloughs off old skin and makes both bride and groom more radiant and beautiful. I learn that a Javanese plant called kunir is also used, and on the island of Sumatra people use a plant called param.

The lulur is slightly gravelly, and cool on my skin. I turn over and Bu Tami lulur-s my back, buttocks, legs and feet. Then we head towards the tub. She has me sit at the small recessed foot bath. Bu Tami fills a bowl with water dipped from the tub and rinses me off. Another bowl is dumped on my head and water runs off me in streams.

Bu Tami reaches for another pot. She lathers my head with the shampoo and washes my hair. Her strong, sure hands massage my scalp at the same time – heaven! She squeezes my skull with more strength than I am used to for head massages, but it does not feel too hard.

She rinses away the shampoo with more bowls of water. Bu Tami has me stand up. She takes a bar of soap and lathers my entire body front and back.

“I feel like a baby being washed by her mother!,” I say.

“Yes, baby and mama,” smiles Bu Tami. She doesn’t speak much English, but she definitely understands.

The soap is washed away; another bowl from the shelf is selected; and now the first real surprise comes. Bu Tami smears me with yogurt. The yogurt calms and softens the skin after the purifying effects of lulur. She slathers me completely from head to foot in the yogurt, then rinses me off one final time.

She turns off the taps of the full tub and points for me to climb in. I happily comply. Bu Tami gathers handfuls of the roses from the big bowls. She crumbles them and strews the petals over the warm bath waters and me.

Bu Tami returns with a glass of fresh-pressed orange, banana, and papaya juice. She leaves me to soak. I lay in the tub swishing flower petals around my body.

A male voice begins to wail. His voice rises and falls. It must be time for sundown prayers. This, in turn, must mean that I have been in this sumptuous massage treatment for 90 minutes. Sunset is abrupt in the equatorial tropics, and occurs punctually at 6:00 every evening we’ve been in Indonesia. My massage session began at 4:30, so I can time the treatment with certainty by the calls to the faithful sounding outdoors.

As most buildings have roofs of bamboo and rattan – or walls that don’t reach the ceiling, like the walls in this massage room – it is impossible not to hear the muezzin’s voice. I lie floating in my heavenly bath and listen to rhythmic wailing calls in Arabic. I am certainly in another country, and I would call it Paradise.

Some time later (5 minutes? 10 minutes?) Bu Tami returns. I climb out of the tub and she towels me dry. The session is not over, though. I lie back down on the low bed, and Bu Tami rubs a rose and hibiscus lotion into my skin. This ends my two-hour session, and I slowly get dressed and leave.

Lotus Garden Restaurant
Lotus Garden Restaurant

At the attached restaurant a young man stands with a menu in his hand. He is asking the receptionist about the massage advertisement on the second page. “Could I get a massage tonight?” he asks.

“I just got one of these massages!” I tell him. “Go for the 2-hour session. You’ll literally come out smelling like a rose. I’m a massage therapist myself and the only thing I regret is that we’re leaving Jogja tomorrow, or I’d come back for another!”

“Really?!,” the young man answers. “A bath would be perfect! I don’t have a hotel room here and I’m taking the all-night train to Jakarta tonight. I won’t be able to clean up before I leave.”

“You’ve come to the right place. The massage will set you back 100,000 rupiahs, about $13. It’s worth every penny.” As Uwe and I leave he’s booking his appointment with Bu Tami. I just know he was in for a special treat.

That's me, in the far right corner
I’m  in the far right corner. We got up at the crack of dawn to reach Borobodur and had this sacred site virtually to ourselves.

Like most tourists, we stayed in Jogjakarta in order to visit Borobodur. Jogjakarta bustles with a marvelous mix of becaks (rickshaws), taxis, bicycles, cars, pony carts, and motorcycles. We either ride in becaks like the natives do or walk in the quieter side streets with their surprising gardens and yards.

Occasionally I spot women walking along with buckets or plastic bowls balanced on their heads. In the buckets are bottles and jars containing different colored herbs or fluids. These are jamu women, the native herbalists who go from door to door carrying their apothecaries with them. A jamu woman will mix up an elixir for her patient on the spot. Jamu products are produced commercially as well, and over 100 million Indonesians take jamu daily.[1]

We discovered the massage center on a side street lined with restaurants and smaller hotels. The boss at the Lotus Garden Restaurant and Hotel had noticed how many visitors carried in their luggage with one hand, while the other hand held onto sore backs or legs. He decided to offer massage. We visited Indonesia in 1999, but a look on the Internet indicates the restaurant still exists. I whole heartedly recommend the massage services.

 ****


NOTES: [1] “Jamu is the Javanese word for any of a great number of traditional Indonesian herbal medicines and health concoctions…There are about 100 jamu recipes in use, but only a dozen or so are really popular.”  Fred B. Eiseman, Jr., Bali: Sekala and Niskala. Volume II: Essays on Society, Tradition, and Craft (Periplus Editions Ltd. CV Java Books, Indonesia, 1990), p. 299.

Go to my post Baum, Bats, and Monkeys for more on our trip to Indonesia.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

8:15 A.M.

 

At 8:15 a.m. some 65 years later,

Birds perch on the Dome.

It’s startlingly calm. A becalming place

Green, tranquil, filled with standing statues

tourists with cameras and

prayers for peace and

pray-ers for peace and

Classes of school children

running

water everywhere.

They bring chains of 1,000 cranes

folded in loving memory of Sadako Sasaki

Her cranes became tinier

leukemia advancing until

Sadako folded symbols of longevity and healing

with the aid of a pin.

At 8:15 a.m. some 65 years later,

Five cranes hold sentinel on

ruined

blackened

girders

The skeleton now, simply,

called the A-Bomb Dome.

Statues are the world’s countries’ monuments

to Hiroshima reborn, arisen

declaring her residents will,

forever, live

in a place called The City of Peace.

Classes of children, schooled in knowledge of what

unthinkable tragedy

took

place

here

stand for photos before the fountain with the flame

in the center burning

until the last nuclear weapon is dismantled;

Before the cenotaph shielding

names of the dead, reopened, names

added on August 6th.

The Peace Park, the terrible

hypocenter.

And the tourists with cameras?

We bear witness. We come to

ask, Why?

How many

angels danced on the head of a pin?

We come to see The Truth or

as much truth as we can bear.

Seeing demands the clearest sight

possible when your eyes are filled

with the pin pricks of tears

Water,

like the water the burned begged for as they died

The peace fountains spouting outside the museum

the river that flows

calmly, becalmingly

near the A-Bomb Dome,

where the cranes have taken up residence.

(17 October 2010 21:27 p.m.)

NOTES: I wrote the first version of this poem while we visited Japan in 2010. The atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m.on August 6, 1945. Sadako Sasaki lived 2 kilometers from the epicenter. She was 2 years old at the time, and died of the radiation exposure 10 years later. Sadako is famous for folding origami cranes. According to the Japanese legend, anyone who folds 1,000 cranes will be granted a wish: Sadako hoped to be healed. Today classrooms of children all around the world send strings of paper cranes to be displayed at Sadako Sasaki’s memorial in the Peace Park. Her statue and story are a powerful reminder of the innocent lives lost.

The cenotaph is opened each August 6th and the newest names of the dead are added. Its arched form provides a shelter to the souls of the victims.

The Peace Park contains statues dedicated by countries around the world; a museum; and monuments. We visited at night and the Dome (the only building left standing after the blast) was occupied by cranes. The image of this World Heritage Monument and the symbolic birds took a powerful hold on my imagination. When we returned at daylight to visit the park it overflowed with classes of laughing children, stunned tourists, and an atmosphere that is impossible to describe. It is a place of shared tragedy, and humanity.

The cranes were still there, perching in the Dome.

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trip to Japan and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Travel Karma

Travel karma is the bad luck, bad weather, bad room, bad case of Montezuna’s revenge… all the moments that you hope you’ll look back on and laugh about someday. That Jamaica honeymoon your brother booked, and the hotel had a fire? Blame it on travel karma. Our week on Malta in the autumn month that the travel agent swore got only 2-3 days of rain, and we were there for all 5 of them? Oh, yeah. It was travel karma.

There’s nothing you can do except shrug your shoulders, find a comfy café to hang out, and pull out the book you brought along.

Travel karma is other moments, too. It’s serendipity, the magic of being in the right place at the exactly right time. It’s the town festival you stumble into while out exploring. Travel karma is the restaurant with the fixed price menu that turns out to include champagne throughout the meal. It’s when you jump on a train 10 seconds before the doors close to leave.

Every so often travel karma gives you a heady dose of both moments…

We booked a charter flight to India.

Where we were headed
Where we were headed

I don’t always sleep well on the eve of a trip, and slept especially poorly this night. The next morning we were on a very early ICE train to Frankfurt to get our flight to India. The ICE is a sleek, fast train that makes few stops and great time.

I hauled my train pass out of my travel purse out of my day back for the train attendant to check. Tired, I reminded myself that I would need to put the pass back in the purse and the purse back in the day pack.

I didn’t.

We got off the train and headed up into the airport. A few horrified minutes later I realized my purse was right where I’d left it, on the seat of a train now heading to Amsterdam… containing my passport. And my credit cards. And my train pass. And $$s. And €€s, all the ready money I was carrying as we weren’t sure how easy it would be to find cash machines.

We could get more cash in the airport and use Uwe’s credit cards, but I wasn’t going anyplace unless I got my passport back. The helpful folks at DB (Deutsches Bahn) contacted the train and they checked: my purse still lay on the seat where I’d left it! The problem was that the next scheduled stop for the ICE wouldn’t be until Köln, several hours up the tracks. DB would hold my purse for me there. There was no way I’d have my passport back in time for us to make our plane.

It was too late to do anything but rebook the flight to India. If I said “Uwe, I’m soooo sorry!” once, I said it 100 times. Man, did I feel awful. But – it was travel karma.

Uwe climbed on the next train heading back to Stuttgart (looking a whole lot less happy than he had early that morning) and I caught a train to Köln. The DB personnel hadn’t been able to report if my purse still contained my valuables. My passport was stamped with the resident alien visa that allowed me to remain in Germany. And without my passport I couldn’t head back to America to see my country, or my family, or go anywhere, for that matter. I felt oddly vulnerable. This situation was bad, and the more I worried about it, the worse it became.

As I sat on the train I bargained with the travel gods: “Just leave me the passport.”

When we reached Köln I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since supper the night before. I wasn’t ready yet for good/bad news about my purse. I bought myself a sandwich and a coffee and stalled for five minutes. Then it was time… I headed to Lost & Found and told someone my story. Of course, I no longer had any ID to prove who I was. He asked me to describe the purse and what was in it.  I flinched inside as I told him.

The nice man vanished into the back and returned with my purse. “Go ahead and check that everything’s there,” he suggested. I know my hands shook as I unzipped it and looked.

Not a pfennig had gone missing. I shrieked Ya-hoo! and he laughed. Then I said thank you and left the little office.

I went directly to the flower vendor kitty-corner to Lost & Found and bought the largest bouquet of white blooms they offered. I marched with the bouquet back into the Lost & Found office. The employees all looked up astonished when they saw me again.

My voice quavered. “These are for all of you. It’s not enough just to say, ‘Thank you for doing your jobs’. It’s so great to know that there are still honest, helpful people in the world!” Nonplussed, they accepted the flowers, but everyone was smiling.

The train trip back to Stuttgart from Köln took 3 hours. The next charter flight to India left 3 days later. When we got finally got there I had one of the most amazing trips of my life. I probably used up a lot of good travel karma on that day I had to journey to Köln, but I hope I’ve added to my karma account since then. And I will never, ever forget my belongings on a train going anywhere. That’s one lesson I’ve learned!

(All photographs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from India and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

17800_Ind_04_04_032
En route
Hubli
6-8th century Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist cave temples, Badami.
Nandi Purmina festival  Hampi, India
Nandi Purmina festival
Hampi
Goa
Goa

Death On A Wet Road Between Towns Without Names

Gabe was grateful that in all the years of his travels, no one had ever thought to inquire, “What’s the worst experience you ever had traveling? What’s the worst thing you ever witnessed?” The day he spent being witness outside of Krakow, Poland in the Auschwitz concentration camp was a terrible experience he never wanted to repeat. The atrocities humans committed against one another was beyond comprehension. And it wasn’t ancient history. It had happened in his parents’ lifetimes.

He could never understand the racism that had been involved. What could there possibly be in an identity or religion that would make someone want to wipe out an entire people? It was inconceivable to him, and he sent up a fervent thank you to whatever gods might be listening that this was so. No! There were some things he didn’t ever want to understand. Auschwitz broke his heart. Gabe cried his first adult tears sitting on a cold bench in front of an execution wall.

Sometimes for his month of travel he headed to the heat. He always had a loose theme to the four weeks, and one year it was ancient lost cultures. Mexico96_107He traveled through a region where jungle archaeologists were reclaiming entire cities from the undergrowth.

DS1_1297Gabe got up early and caught the local bus. He spent happy hours at the site, with satisfaction doing what he’d come to call connecting some of the dots. If the world were a large puzzle, a Pointillism painting, Gabe’s slow explorations gave him more of the pieces to the puzzle, more and more of the dots in which a picture was slowly emerging.

That day he made further connections in terms of ancient civilization, art history, and cultural contexts. Gabe was overly pleased with himself. He decided not to wait for the next bus to rumble past the ruins. DS1_1310Mexico96_119Ignoring the rain clouds threatening the skies, he began the long walk back to his hotel in town.

Twenty minutes later Gabe knew he’d miscalculated badly. The rain clouds blew lower and closer in no time. At the halfway point, the storm broke. Gabe would get soaked if he kept on the road and equally as drenched if he tried to turn back to the bus shelter at the entrance road to the ruins. He pulled his rain jacket (a marvel that rolled up upon itself into a small ball with a carrying band) out of his little daypack and went on trudging, shaking his head at his own foolish optimism.

Potholes filled first, creating wet craters. Gabe got closer to town and the traffic increased, the wheels of old cars and carts churning the rest of the street into ruts. In less than ten minutes the single dirt road turned to roiling mud. It rained even harder, hard drops that fell in steady, monotonous sheets. Gabe moved over closer to the shoulder away from the biggest vehicles. He had to share the edge of the muddy street with other people on foot, vendors pushing carts covered with folds of plastic cloths or sheets of cardboard, and bicycles and motorbikes.

The rest of the traffic converged in the center of the street, trying to find spots that hadn’t yet vanished into a river of wet earth. A motorbike with a family on the back passed Gabe. The father drove slowly, trying to keep the bike from tilting over into the stream. His wife sat behind him with her arms around and underneath the clear plastic rain poncho her husband wore; a small boy perched, balanced in the seat behind her. He was wedged between the woman and the sacks of potatoes and peppers lashed to the rear of the motorbike.

There was a blare of arguing horns and out of the storm a jeep appeared. Sheets of rain obscured the view. The jeep driver headed alarmingly fast down the direct center of the road, his horn louder as the jeep got closer. When it was near enough people could see it was a government vehicle, and everyone moved over to the sides of the road to let it by.

Before anyone could grasp the danger the jeep was upon them. The driver kept one hand pressed on the horn as people scrambled in the mud. Gabe watched in horror as the motorbike with the family hit a pothole. The father put out a frantic foot trying to brake, but it was too late. The motorbike went over on its side. His body disappeared under water and the jeep ran over his leg.

People screamed for the jeep to stop but it never even slowed down; the driver now had both hands jammed on the horn and his foot on the gas pedal. He continued determinedly on down through the river of mud. Gabe could reach out and touch the bumper as it rushed by, it was so close.

The jeep was swallowed up in the sheets of rain and only the victims and witnesses remained. The jeep hadn’t carried any license plates and even if he had seen one Gabe was kilometers away from a police station. Who was he going to report to? All he could do was try to help the man who’d been run over. At least it had only been his booted foot, and that had been down in the pothole; maybe the man wasn’t hurt too badly.

Gabe turned back to the sodden street as rain rushed down his face and over his rain slicker. Through the damp he saw the fallen figures. The blare of the jeep horn faded, and a human voice’s wail began to compete with the sound of the waters crashing from the opened skies. Other voices joined the first one.

The traffic swerved around the center where people had gathered in a loose circle. Gabe moved closer and the driver dragged himself away from the fallen motorcycle. The man was limping, but he was up on his feet.

The motorcycle was already half buried by mud washing up over and against the frame in fast moving spurts; the bags lashed to the back of the bike had broken open. Lumps that had to be potatoes lay in the stream, some of them slowly rolling away in the force of the moving rainwater.

But the pair ignored the tubers and didn’t try to gather them back up. They huddled over another one of the sacks in the road as they wailed. Gabe tried futilely to push the water from his eyes. He shook his head to clear it, and then he saw the injured man and his wife were sitting in the mud as they held the body of their son. He lay like a broken toy, like a rag doll, small limp limbs dangling from his parents’ cradling hands.

The circle of people standing around them gently lifted the couple and half carried, half walked them over to the useless safety of the field at the side of the road. Gabe bodily lifted the damaged motorbike and carried it out of the street. Determinedly everyone moved back in the river that had been a road and collected potatoes. They ignored the blares of cars trying to navigate around them. They picked up the last of potatoes and the burst sack and returned them to the hapless parents.

Gabe thought, Where’s the nearest hospital? His next thought was the sad realization that a local hospital was probably located next to the nearest police station: a hundred kilometers away in the next city. A clinic, he thought desperately. But the country had no money for health services, and only Bread for the World and Doctors without Borders had any kind of a presence in the region. Gabe couldn’t speak any of the local languages and he had no training in anything more than the most rudimentary medicine.

Despairing, knowing there was nothing more he could do to help, Gabe resumed the harder trudge back towards the center.

Alone back in his hotel room, he drank to get blind drunk. Whether his eyes were opened or closed he saw the broken doll body of the undernourished child, the grief on the faces of the child’s parents. Worst of all was realizing his own helplessness to do anything whatsoever. There was nothing he could have done that afternoon to change the outcome and nothing he could do now. Gabe cried, for the first time since the visit to Auschwitz years earlier. They were bitter tears that refused to stop coming. Gabe was as unable to halt them as he was to halt the rains still falling outside of his room in the shabby hotel.

No one ever asked him, What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? Gabe knew it was the rainy day, the motorbike with a family riding on the back. What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen traveling? If asked he wouldn’t have answered, because he carried the pain of that memory too close to his heart. It stayed alive and refused to fade. The worst thing he ever witnessed remained dangerously in real time, on a wet road between towns without names. It created a place of secret despair and awareness that the world was not a place of entirely benevolent forces.

It became his most closely held secret. Despite the sad knowledge, or perhaps because of it, Gabe determined to live as if the opposite might be true. That experience was seminal, one that defined who he was as a human being, in the inner place where his heart really beat.DS1_1367

– from my short story “Waiting” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to my earlier post 2,000,000 Wrinkle-lipped Bats for more of Gabe’s travels.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips to Mexico and Cambodia, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.

Despair Is An Exotic Ingredient

Dragon fruit
Dragon fruit, Laos

In a post titled Punctured, we met Jeremy: he works in a food co-op and is bitten by a gigantic Thai centipede. Earlier Jeremy worked in a coolants factory that moved operations; repaired stereo turntables until CDs took over; and serviced video stores where the only genre patrons regularly rented was pornography. Then, with the advent of on-line downloads, those shops closed as well.

He’s tried to involve his wife in some aspect of each new venture. Now Jeremy’s at the co-op, and Abigail’s nervous…

Pomolo, Mekong Delta Vietnam
Pomolo, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Jeremy got a job at the market and the offerings for her continued education went from disks to baskets full of items Abigail couldn’t begin to identify. “Whole foods?” Abigail asked bewildered. “What, have I been cooking halves all this time?” Her culinary repertoire consisted of items like tuna surprise, or flank steak with teriyaki sauce.

Jackfruit, southern Goa, India
Jackfruit, Organic farm, Goa, India
Water buffalo, market Luang Prabang, Laos
Water buffalo, Luang Prabang, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos
Mekong seaweed, Laos

As Jeremy introduced new ingredients for her to cook, Abigail despaired. The experiment with pornography had wearied her in more than just her body. The effort to familiarize herself with her husband’s latest employment arena was too much. Abigail couldn’t even begin to cook with broccoli rape, celeriac, rose apples, or salsify

just looking up the latter food and realizing that it was a vegetable also known as oyster plant rendered it too foreign. If she didn’t know where to start with a real oyster, how in the world would she find her way around a dastardly, cleverly named root vegetable you had to wear rubber gloves to prepare?

Abby stood in her kitchen, lost. She resented feeling inadequate, but she felt guilty, too. Nothing says loving like something in the oven. Which part was true, she wondered. Love, for whom? Something in the oven, but what?

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Preserved eggs, Kanchanaburi, Thailand
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Chin lau, Bagan, Burma

Her husband had assaulted her senses one by one. First it was her sense of touch with the air conditioners. Sound had proved inadequate with the stereo shops. Her senses of sight, sound and touch were simultaneously overwhelmed by pornography. Currently the food store derided her sense of taste. Abigail wondered depressed what would be next for her sense of smell.

Abby leafed through the cookbook he bought her and sighed, looking without success for familiar ingredients. Miracle whip. Devils food cake. Cowboy beans and chili. A slice of American cheese on a burger. Jell-O with fruit cocktail. When she confessed this to Jeremy, he said, “I married a Betty Crocker cliché.”

He had been dismayed when she first cooked for him. After all those great meals in exotic countries of curries, tom yum gum soups, and completely fresh ingredients, Abby’s cooking was like going from Technicolor to a 50’s black and white film clip. She served fish sticks bearing little resemblance to the fish dishes of his recent memory.25200_V_10_18_34

Vietnam

Vietnam
All dishes prepared on boats in Halong Bay, Vietnam

“I made homemade tartar sauce!” she announced proudly.

Jeremy spooned out mayonnaise with pickles cut into it and smiled weakly.

The first time she tried to cook him Indian food Abigail choked almost to death because she had no idea that the whole spices all get taken out or pushed to one side, and are not eaten. Ditto with the hot chilies used for flavor.

Chillies, Hue, Vietnam
Chilies and mini limes, Hue, Vietnam

New ingredients were dangerous. For her, bourbon vanilla meant cheap cooking sherry. Cans of condensed soup were her friends.

Abby loved tuna surprise, and the most exotic dish she could cook was a quiche. “If life is a banquet,” she thought, “I must be cheese Doritos chips. I am flat cherry soda.”

– from my short story “Punctured” in Broken In: A Novel in Stories. Available online at amazon.com, amazon.de, and amazon in countries everywhere.

Go to the post titled Punctured to read more about Jeremy.

(All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image.)

More pictures from our trips and of Uwe’s photography may be viewed at viewpics.de.

  • Salsify: also called scorzifora and ‘the poor man’s oyster’ (photo from Wikipedia)
  • Pomolo: gigantic relative of grapefruit, can grow to the size of a basketball
  • Dragon fruit: thick red rind is peeled away to reveal citrus fruit with pale flesh flecked with black seeds
  • Mekong seaweed: river weed harvested from Mekong River. Often fried in thin sheets with garlic or sesame seeds. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a specialty eaten with dipping sauce that includes pounded water buffalo skin as an ingredient
  • Chin lau: grows on bushes and tastes like lime

The World’s Largest Pile of Bricks

We love travel. I refer to traveling to new cultures and places as connecting the dots. With each trip I feel a little more connected to the world at large and to the various dots that make up my picture of this planet and we who inhabit it.

While in Burma, we took a boat up the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Mingun for the day. Yet another fallen kingdom, Mingun is reknowned for the largest functioning bell in the world. It weighs in at 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds). The sound is a deep claaangg, rung by thumping the bell hard on the lip with a mallet. Mingun is also famous for the king who bankrupted his people with an attempt to outdo every shrine-builder who’d ever lived: King Bodawpaya wanted to build the huge stupa known as Mingun Pahtodawgyi.

It would be the highest in the world, a magnificent 150 meters tall, dwarfing everything built

How the stupa would have appeared finished
How the stupa would have appeared finished

prior to it.

Work began in 1790.

King Bodawpaya never finished his religious edifice. He ran out of funds; or, halted construction due to a prophesy that his realm would end when the building was completed; or, that completing the stupa would signal his death. An earthquake on March 23, 1839 dislodged the huge bell and damaged the structure beyond saving. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi became the world’s largest pile of bricks…

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Mingun Pahtodawgyi. Can you spot the teeny tiny humans in the photograph? (Click on the photograph)

The structure stands, all semi-finished 50 meters (150 feet) of it, roughly a third of the original planned height.

It’s a holy place and the faithful still come to worship. And the curious come to climb it [enter Jadi and Uwe, stage right]. Now, at any sacred Buddhist site, you remove your shoes at the base of the structure.

Going up, sir?
Going up, sir?

And you climb the stairs, barefoot, and then clambor on the ruins, barefoot, for one truly awe-inspiring view of the Irrawaddy River and the surrounding countryside.

View of the Irrawaddy River
View of the Irrawaddy River and several of Mingun’s gorgeous temples

Shan pilgrims in traditional outfits had also climbed the stupa and gave us the gift of their smiles and waves.

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Shan pilgrims
Shan pilgrims

It was a magnificent afternoon and yet another highlight of our 4 weeks in Burma.

Picnicking on the Edge
Picnicking on the Edge

It wasn’t until we were safely home again that I got a good look at Uwe’s photographs.

Go on, I dare you
Go on, I dare you
Just a few small jumps and you’re there

There was a photo I had taken, too.

Hope those bricks are stable!
Hope those bricks are stable!

All photogaphs can be enlarged by simply clicking on the image. And click on the final image to enlarge it for an even better idea of how damaged the site is.

More pictures from our trip to Burma, and of Uwe’s photography, may be viewed at viewpics.de.